Superman III: Revisted
November 24, 2016 \ Movies \ 0 Comments
Superman III revisited. In this series I re-watch a movie I haven’t seen in a long time to look at it with new eyes, and (hopefully) more experience. This time I revisit Superman III.
I haven’t seen Superman III since I was a kid and couldn’t really remember much of it. Re-watching it again, I can see why it wasn’t worth remembering. The basic plot is that tycoon Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) has ambitions to dominate more global markets. Webster discovers a talented computer programmer, Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor), and Webster forces Gorman to use his programming talent to manipulate the world and to combat Superman (Reeve).
The opening sequence of Superman III is a series of mishaps: A blind man’s dog runs away, the dog knocks over a lady, the blind man mistakes a street lane painter as his dog and starts following it. Somewhere amidst this chaos, a man gets trapped inside a flooding car and Superman must save him.
I wondered what kind of story this was establishing. Is this a story about all the things that go wrong in the world that Superman can’t fix? Is it a story about him struggling to decide between who to help and who to abandon, even if that sometimes means between choosing who lives and who dies? This was me giving Superman III too much credit. Superman III is a Superman story told as a screwball comedy. It is a strange movie. It is a boring movie. And I didn’t think it was a funny movie.
Here are six thoughts I had when revisited Superman III.
Reeve once commented about director Richard Lester’s work on Superman III:
[He] was always looking for a gag — sometimes to the point where the gags involving Richard Pryor went over the top. I mean, I didn’t think that his going off the top of a building, on skis with a pink tablecloth around his shoulders, was particularly funny.
In the opening sequence I described earlier, I spent a long time trying to figure out what it meant. It is over five minutes of one mishap that dominos and creates another. I understood that the opening sequence had a madcap quality. Why it had a blind man holding onto a street lane painter machine, knocking a man into a hole, stepping on the man’s head to walk over the hole, and walking into a tree and saying, “excuse me,” but it wasn’t until I read Reeve’s quote that I understood why. Superman III‘s opening is director Richard Lester’s way of saying that this movie isn’t like the other Superman movies, it’s a comedy and it isn’t going to take itself very seriously.
Too bad it’s not a funny comedy.
It’s also unfortunate that the effort put towards making a joke doesn’t always serve the story. For example, there’s a scene where Gorman is trying access a weather satellite. In the process he inadvertently messes with a number of other systems and creates problems. In one instance we see a man sitting down to breakfast with his wife. His wife is looking at pictures of cruises (implying she likes to spend money on lavish things). Her husband is opening some bills and sees one for $176k. He takes a sliced grapefruit and shoves it into his wife’s face, then casually goes back to his breakfast. There’s another sequence where the traffic lights go screwy causing pedestrians to cross both sides of the road at the same time (there’s even an additional joke here, where the green figure from the crosswalk sign climbs up to the figure and they start fighting).
I realize these are all supposed to be jokes, but all these scenes are unnecessary. Gorman creates these accidents while trying to gain access to the satellite. After he finally finds the program he was looking for, the accidents stop happening and he reprograms the satellite which propels the story forward.
Taking Reeve’s example, the scene where Pryor falls off a building wearing skis and wrapped in a pink tablecloth isn’t necessary to advancing the story either. In the scene, Gorman is simply telling his boss, Webster, that Superman stopped their plans. Then he accidentally falls off the building while imitating Superman. None of this has anything to do with advancing the story.
I’m not saying that every single thing in a comedy should advance the story, but sometimes you can be funny and advance the plot at the same time. Take this scene from Guardians of the Galaxy.
This is funny on multiple levels. Part of what makes it funny is that it is true to character. We can see from Groot’s dumb, happy face that he was only trying to help Rocket, which helps shows us the master-servant relationship Rocket and Groot have, while also showing us that they really do care about each other. There’s an additional gag in that we get to watch Groot do this while Peter and Rocket and talking about how hard it will be to get up there, in addition to the fact that they must acquire the part last, just as Groot pulls it. And all these gags occur in the process of starting the prison break and moving the story forward.
Unfortunately, Superman III doesn’t incorporate it’s comedy to tell the story; in almost every case the comedy is supplementary, unnecessary, and often creates scenes or situations that don’t make sense.
Things That Don’t Make Sense
Nitpicking movies when they don’t make sense is usually an unhelpful exercise. I find nitpicking generally all boils down to, “this was a thing that suspended my disbelief and took me out of the experience.” And while it is important for storytellers to consider these problems, nitpicking doesn’t necessarily make stories or movies better because they’re highly subjective.
That said, I’m only human. Sometimes a movie bothers me so much that I just have to nitpick so that I feel better. I’m sorry. I’ll be brief.
- While helping put out a chemical fire, Superman tells the fire chief, “You gotta get the east wing out.” Really Superman? You’re Superman! Why don’t YOU put the fire out?
- Eventually Superman DOES put out that fire by freezing a nearby lake and dropping it from the sky onto the chemical plant. The entire thing melts as it falls and turns into harmless droplets of water.
- Gorman falls off the roof of at least a forty story building and doesn’t break any bones
- Lana calls Clark to thank him for getting Superman to go to dinner with her and just hangs up on him once she confirms Superman will be there.
- They program a weather satellite to make weather. To MAKE weather.
- They create a super computer that figures out people’s weaknesses and then “wipes them out.”
- During the final fight, Gorman stops the super computer by taking a single screw out of the machine.
*exhales* Thank you. I feel better.
The first three Superman movies all feature a version of Miss Tessmacher; a large breasted woman who shows a lot of cleavage. In the first two movies, it is Miss Tessmacher herself. In Superman III, it Lorelai.
There’s a common thread to these women beyond their bust size. All of them are in a relationship with the main villain, but we never see any clear indication of affection between them. These women always seem more interested in Superman and openly flirt with him. In fact, the only affection we see the Titmachers display is to Superman himself.
Mostly these women seem to have confused motives. They work for the villain, but they fawn for the hero. They’re in a relationship with the villain, but they never express or receive physical affection. In this sense, they’re essentially non-characters because they have no clear motives and the actions they do portray counteract their established roles.
I suspect these women are there purely as eye candy for the comic book viewer, who imagines himself as Superman, and not only gets to be omnipotent and do the right thing, but also gets all the girls, both good and bad.
And that’s a little sad.
What Could Have Been
Ilya Salkind was an executive producer on the first three Superman films with Christopher Reeve (as well as the Supergirl film) and wrote a story outline for the third film that involved Braniac, Supergirl, and some villain named Mr. Mxyzptlk. It was a bizarre story that included a father/daughter relationship between Brainiac and Supergirl (until she grows up and Brainiac decides he wants to marry her), a love story between Superman and Supergirl (even though they’re cousins in the comics), and time travel to medival times where Brainiac and Superman lose their powers and fight each other in a joust.
While at the bottom of the story outline Salkind says that this is just to show the different places they could go with the third movie, I think all of these ideas would have been too weird. Which kind of gives you a little insight into the people behind the Superman movies …
Also, Tony Danza was cast as Superman when Christopher Reeve, John Travolta, Jeff Bridges, and Kurt Russel turned down the role. The director, Richard Lester, couldn’t tolerate the idea of Tony Danza as Superman and begged Reeve to come back. Reeve only agreed if he could make changes to the script.
So Superman III could have been worse.
Lana Lang is the new love interest in Superman III and is played by the lovely Annette O’Toole (who was later Mrs. Kent on the Smallville TV show). I’ve said this before about O’Toole, but there’s an openness and warmth to her face, her expressions, her voice. It’s easy to feel for her and O’Toole utilizes her gifts to earn our empathy. Her beauty doesn’t hurt either.
Unfortunately I’m not sure there’s enough in the script to utilize O’Toole’s potential as an actor, nor Lana’s potential as a character and love interest for Clark. Take a look at this scene where they are first reunited.
The camera is distant as they dance. Almost as though we’re peering at them from afar. Nevertheless, the scene is going well; we’re starting to get invested in the start of their relationship. And then the scene abruptly ends. Almost as if there was more there and we just don’t get to see it.
And that’s how their relationship is throughout the movie; we get a hint at something special and then it’s off to the next gag.
I was really confused by the Superman/Clark Kent fight as a kid. I didn’t understand why it happened, or what caused it. Watching it again I can see it makes sense thematically. It is the good, wholesome values Clark gained growing up in Smallville versus the uninhibited power of Superman that threatens to take over his humanity. This is actually a good story to tell because Superman’s power is so great it’s difficult to give him a challenge (other than Kryptonite). By pitting Superman against himself the movie gets around that problem.
The reason people remember the junkyard fight is because it’s the only moment of minor triumph in the whole movie. Superman is presented a great challenge and when he overcomes it, the boisterous John Williams music plays and for that one fleeting moment we share in Superman III‘s triumph before we crash back to its unfunny, disappointing reality.